The Unfathomable Mystery of the Trinity
March 1st, 1981 @ 8:15 AM
THE UNFATHOMABLE MYSTERY OF THE TRINITY
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Corinthians 13:14
3-1-81 8:15 a.m.
And God bless the great throngs of you who are sharing this hour with us in the First Baptist Church of Dallas on radio, the two radio stations that bear its message. This is the pastor preaching the sermon entitled The Unfathomable Mystery of the Trinity. It is the last sermon in the doctrinal series on theology, the presentation of the revelation of God. Next Sunday we begin the series on Jesus our Lord, and it is entitled The Marvel of Jesus; this Sunday, concluding the series on theology proper, on God: the baffling, and inexplicable, and unfathomable mystery of the Trinity.
In 2 Corinthians, the last chapter, the last verse, Paul concludes his letter to the church at Corinth with a trinitarian benediction: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen” [2 Corinthians 13:14]. The tripersonality of God: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit,” the Three-in-One. The unfathomable mystery of the Trinity—not that the mystery of the Trinity is the only unfathomable mystery around us. We live in inexplicable mystery every moment of our lives. We ourselves are an inextricable part of it. How do you explain the fact that immaterial spirit and corporeal matter are both together making up our lives? You don’t explain it. You just look at it and live with it.
Jesus, in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, will refer to us as “body and soul” [Matthew 10:28]: psuchē, “soul,” the sentient, intellectual, emotional spirit, soul, and sōma, the physical, material body. How is it that spirit and body could be joined together in one personality? But there you are. And how is it that spirit, mind, will, influence matter? We don’t know, nor does anybody know. We can’t understand. It’s just one of the baffling mysteries of life. So it is with the unfathomable mystery of the Trinity. The only difference is that when we speak of God, we reach into the infinite, beyond the finite. There is no man that in his mind can contain or explain or understand these unfathomable, unsearchable revelations.
In reading in the life of Augustine, he was walking by the seashore and saw a little boy digging a trench in the sand. He stopped and said to the lad, “What are you doing?” and the little fellow replied, he said, “Sir, I am digging a trench here in the sand.” And Augustine asked him, “What are you going to do with it? What for?” And the little fellow replied, “I am going to empty the sea into my trench.”
As Augustine walked down the seashore, he began to muse in his mind about what the lad had said. He’s going to empty the sea into his little trench. And Augustine said, “Sometimes we think that we will contain the vast infinitude of God in our limited minds.” It is unreachable, it is unsearchable, it is unfathomable, it is uncontainable, the mystery of the illimitable, unsearchable, infinite God. In all of the forms of life, the higher we rise, the more intricate and inexplicable it becomes—a rock, or then a tree, or then an animal, or then a man, or then the mighty God; the unfathomable mystery of the Trinity. It is just that God reveals Himself to us in the Holy Scriptures as a tripersonality, and second, in our human experience, we know God as a trinity, a tripersonality. Now we begin.
First: God reveals Himself to us as a tripersonality. In the infinite nature of God there are three eternal distinctions, and the three are coequal. They are coeternal. There is one essence, but there are three subsistences. There are three in one, and one in three. We know God in the Holy Scriptures as a personality. He talks. He moves. He thinks. He speaks. He acts. God lives and He reveals Himself to us in the Holy Scriptures.
We are verbal creatures. We talk. We communicate. We think. We act. We speak. So God reveals Himself to us in words, in revelations: He verbalizes. He talks. He communicates. His self-disclosure is written out here in this sacred page. And the self-disclosure of God is always personal. He is somebody. We ought never to think of God as though He were a philosopher’s abstraction or an academician’s principle. God’s revelation of Himself is never as a sterile and barren and empty first cause. He is always personal. He is somebody. We are made in His image [Genesis 1:26-27], and we are like Him, and He is like us.
In the self-disclosure of God in the Holy Scriptures, He always reveals Himself as a tripersonality. There are three eternal distinctions in the Godhead. One is God the Father, two is God the Holy Spirit, and three is God the incarnate Son. We have those three distinctions in the Godhead all through the Bible, from the first verse to the last verse. He reveals Himself always as a tripersonality. When I open the Book and read the first verse and the first chapter, there I meet the deity of God in three distinctions. It begins, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” [Genesis 1:1]. Then the second verse:
And the earth was without form, and void, chaotic; darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters …
And God said, Let Us make man in Our image, and after Our likeness.
[Genesis 1:2, 26]
In the self-disclosure of God, “In the beginning God”: plural, “God” [Genesis 1:1].
The singular form of the Hebrew word for God is el, e-l, like Elkanah and his son Samuel [1 Samuel 1:19-20]. The combination is so ofttimes found in the way they name Hebrew children; el, God, and the plural form of el is elohim, and elohim is the word translated here “God,” plural form [Genesis 1:1]. I counted in the first chapter of Genesis—in the first chapter of Genesis, elohim is used thirty-two times, and in the Books of Moses, elohim is used over five hundred times. And in the Old Testament, elohim, plural, is used over five thousand times, and always with a singular verb; elohim, plural with a singular verb, one; a plurality in unity, and a unity in plurality, elohim. The plural form represents the abounding glory and infinitude of God; the singular verb, that He is one: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our elohim is one elohim, one God” [Mark 12:29; Deuteronomy 6:4].
Do you notice immediately we are introduced to the second distinction in the Godhead? “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth [Genesis 1:1] … And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” [Genesis 1:2]. The Spirit of God: there’s a distinction immediately made in the Godhead, the Spirit of God. And all through the Bible, all the way through, there will be the revelation of the moving, speaking, acting, defining Spirit of God. The Spirit of God came upon Bezaleel and Aholiab to make them able to form and to contrive all the beautiful things that made up the tabernacle [Exodus 31:1-6, 35:30-34]. “The Spirit of God came upon David” [1 Samuel 16:13], and in the next verse, “And the Spirit of God left Saul, and an evil spirit troubled him” [1 Samuel 16:14]. Or in Zechariah: “Not by might, nor by power, but My Spirit, saith the Lord” [Zechariah 4:6]; a distinction in the Godhead: God the great One, the Father, and God the Holy Spirit that moves and works in human heart and human life.
And in this Old Testament, in that plurality, God said, “Let Us make man in Our image” [Genesis 1:26]. There is another Person that is constantly appearing in the Old Testament Scriptures. Who is He? Look. In the incomparable and moving story of Abraham, in the twenty-second chapter of Genesis, in the offering up of Isaac on Mt. Moriah, when Abraham obeyed God, and bound his only son and laid him as a sacrifice and raised the knife to plunge into his heart [Genesis 22:1-10]—now listen to the story: “And the Angel of the Lord spake unto Abraham, saying, By Myself, saith the Lord, have I sworn” [Genesis 22:15-16]. And then the continuation: what God has sworn to Abraham—that is, the Angel of the Lord has sworn by Himself to Abraham—saying, “Because thou hast obeyed My voice, blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thy seed, and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” [Genesis 22:16-18].
Who is that Angel of the Lord? “The Angel of the Lord spake unto Abraham saying, By Myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, In blessing I will bless thee” [Genesis 22:17]. Who is that Angel of the Lord?
Take again, in the thirty-first chapter of Genesis: “The Angel of the Lord spake unto Jacob, saying, I am the God of Beth-el” [Genesis 31:13]. Who is this Angel of the Lord who says, “I am the God of Beth-el”? Take again, in the third chapter of the Book of Exodus: Moses, keeping his father’s sheep on the back side of the Sinaitic desert, sees a bush burning unconsumed. “Moses says, I will turn aside and see this wondrous sight [Exodus 3:1-3] … And the Angel of the Lord spake unto Moses out of the flame of the bush that burned, and said, I am the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob” [Exodus 3:4-6]. Who is this Angel of the Lord that speaks to Moses, saying, “I am the God of your fathers”? Who is that Angel of the Lord?
Take again, in the story of Joshua crossing the Jordan River and surrounding Jericho: Joshua sees before him a Warrior, and, coming into His presence, Joshua asks, “Who are You?” and that Warrior replies, “As Captain of the host of the people of God am I come,” and Joshua falls down before Him [Joshua 5:13-14]. And that Warrior says, “Take off thy shoes from off thy feet; for the place whereon you stand is holy ground” [Joshua 5:15]. Who is that warrior who says, “As Captain of the host of the people of God am I come”? [Joshua 5:14]. Who is that?
Or just once again—not to belabor the point—in the furnace heated seven times [more] [Daniel 3:19], into which the three Hebrew children were cast [Daniel 3:20-21], Nebuchadnezzar looks closely and there are those three young men walking unbound and unconsumed, and the king exclaims, “But there is a fourth walking with them in the midst of the furnace, and the form of the fourth is like unto the Son of God” [Daniel 3:25]. Who is that?
Always through the Old Testament you will see that Angel of the Presence of God appearing [Isaiah 63:9]. It is a Christophany. It is an epiphany. It is the third Person with God and the Holy Spirit in the Trinity of the Godhead [Matthew 28:19]. In the Old Testament God reveals Himself as a tripersonality: the Father, elohim [Genesis 1:1]; the Spirit, the ruach [Genesis 1:2]; the Angel of His Presence [Isaiah 63:9], the christophany, the Christ. And in the Old Testament we know God as a person whose name is Jehovah [Genesis 2:4], and when He is revealed to us in the New Testament His name is the blessed and wonderful Lord Jesus [John 20:28].
We now come to the New Testament. Not only in the Old Testament is God revealed to us as a tripersonality, three eternal distinctions in the Godhead, but all through the New Testament the same revelation is made of the character of the person of God. It starts off like that. In the first chapter of Matthew, the three are there presented. “According to the word of the Lord did this come to pass, that a virgin has conceived by the Holy Spirit, and you are to call His name Joshua, Savior” [Matthew 1:20-21]; in Greek and English it comes out “Jesus.” “All of this comes to pass, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord in the prophet Isaiah [Isaiah 7:14], A virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they are going to call His name God is with us, Immanuel, God is with us” [Matthew 1:22-23]; all three of them in the beginning. That’s the way the story starts in the first chapter of the Book of Matthew.
Then in the passage that we read together, when He began His messianic ministry, there the three are together. The Son of God is baptized, and the Holy Spirit of God in the form of a dove descends upon Him, and the voice of the Father, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” [Matthew 3:16-17]: all three of them together. And the story ends like that. Matthew 28, in the Great Commission, the last words: “Baptizing them in the name of”—singular, and He has three names. I have three names; many of you have three names. God has three names: “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” [Matthew 28:19]. All through the Bible God is presented to us as a Trinity.
I copied down some of these passages in the Bible where all three in the Godhead are named. In the passage of our beginning text, “The grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all” [2 Corinthians 13:14]. Now these are passages in the New Testament where all three are named: Luke 1:35, John 14:26, John 15:26, Galatians 4:6, 1 Peter 1:2, Jude 20-21, Revelation 1:4-6. And then I went through the Book of Ephesians, and in the Book of Ephesians all three Persons of the Trinity are named in Ephesians 1:17, Ephesians 2:18, Ephesians 3:14, 16, Ephesians 4:4-7, Ephesians 5:18-20, and Ephesians 6:17, 23. All three of them are named as Paul names them here, “The grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen” [2 Corinthians 13:14]. God reveals Himself in His self-disclosure as a tripersonality.
Now, in my studying I was overwhelmed by something I had never seen before. Wherever in the Bible all three of Them are named, where They stand together, without exception it is for a redemptive blessing. It is in comfort and mercy that God thus reveals Himself.
Let me by contrast explain what I mean. Sometimes God the Father will reveal Himself in awesome judgment as He did upon Mount Sinai. In thunder and in lightning and in darkness God delivers His commandments [Exodus 19:16]: “This do and live [Leviticus 18:5]; Disobey and die” [Deuteronomy 24:16]. The presence of God is so awesome that even the animals that touched the mountain died [Exodus 19:13], and the people said to Moses, “Let us not hear His voice, lest we die” [Exodus 20:19]. That’s a revelation of God the Father.
In the Book of Matthew, Jesus says of Himself that “This is a stone, I, a stone of stumbling to men who cannot believe; and on those whom the stone falls it shall grind them to powder” [Matthew 21:44]: the Son of God. And in that same Book of Matthew it speaks of the Holy Spirit: “Every sin shall be forgiven a man; if he blasphemes the name of God, forgiven”—blaspheme the name of the Son, he can be forgiven—“but whosoever blasphemes the Holy Spirit there is never forgiveness, neither in this world nor in the world to come” [Matthew 12:31-32]. It is an unpardonable sin. When you read in the Bible of each one of the members of the Godhead individually, sometimes it is awesome in judgment. But whenever the three are presented as standing together, it is always and without exception in mercy, and in redemption, and in loving-kindness, and in infinite merciful forgiveness.
I take just two passages. One will be in the sixty-third chapter of Isaiah. All three persons of the Godhead are named in Isaiah 63:7-10. Now, you look how he will speak: “I will mention the loving-kindnesses of the Lord…according to all that the Lord hath bestowed upon us, and His great goodness toward us . . . For He said, Surely they are My people . . . so He was their Savior,” capital “S.” “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His Presence”—didn’t I say all through the Bible that Angel appears?—“in all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His Presence saved them: in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and He bare them, and carried them all the days of old” [Isaiah 63:7-9]. What a beautiful revelation of God. All three of Them named here.
I choose just one other passage, the three of Them named together always in mercy and redemption. The first chapter of the Revelation: “John to the seven churches which are in Asia,” number one, “Grace be unto you, and peace, from Him which is, and which was, and which is to come”: that’s God. Number two: “And from the seven Spirits which are before His throne” [Revelation 1:4]—seven, there, is a number of the fullness and plentitude, the overflowing presence of the Spirit of God. That’s number two. And number three:
And from Jesus the Christ, who is the faithful witness, the first begotten of the dead, the Prince of the kings of the earth. Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood,
And hath made us kings and priests unto God … to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
Always when the three are presented together, it is in mercy and love and redemption. That’s the revelation of God in the Bible; always as a tripersonality.
Now the second part of our message. We know God in human experience as a tripersonality: God the Father transcendent above all, God the Son immanent through all, and God the Holy Spirit inherent in all. We know God in human experience as a tripersonality. We know Him that way in conversion, in salvation, in regeneration. God, the great and holy, beyond and above all of the whole world, the great holy God; and we, so sinful, a dying creature. How do we approach the awesome holiness of God, we who are made out of dust and ashes, we who are so sinful? How do we come into His presence?
We come in the redemptive love and mercy of Jesus our Lord [Hebrews 10:19-22]. He bore our sins [1 Peter 2:24], and He washed away the stain in our souls [1 Corinthians 6:11], and we are invited to come boldly to the throne of grace, the throne of grace, that we might find forgiveness and pardon [Hebrews 4:14-16], and we are encouraged thus to come by the moving of the Spirit in our hearts [Romans 8:9; Revelation 22:17]. No one would respond were it not for the moving of the Spirit in our hearts. We know God and we come to God in human experience as a tripersonality.
Thus do we live before the Lord. We pray to him in a tripersonality, the self-revelation of God to us. We pray to the Father, “Our Father who art in heaven” [Matthew 6:9], and we come in the name of Jesus [John 14:13-14]; not in our name or in our righteousness, but we plead the blood and the forgiveness and the pardon of our Lord [Hebrews 10:19-22]. And the Holy Spirit moves us. We feel His presence in our deepest souls. The Holy Spirit of God moves us to call upon the name of the Lord [Ephesians 6:18; Jude 1:20]. We know God in human experience as a tripersonality: our Father, and our Savior, and the Spirit of God that moves in our souls.
Now may I make, in this last moment, a concluding observation? Wherever, wherever there is a people who deny the Trinity, the tripersonal revelation of God, wherever there are a people who do that, they fall into all kinds of sterile and barren hopelessness. It’s inevitable. You can’t escape it. They don’t have a Savior, for to them Jesus is just another man, dead in the grave, buried like all other men, and He can’t be a perfect revelation of God. He is just another man, and there’s no assurance, therefore, that He hears us when we pray, that He pardons us from our sins, that He saves us in the hour of death, and that He is able to comfort us and to sustain us in our day of need.
Whenever you depart from the trinitarian revelation of God, nothing remains but darkness and hopelessness. But for us, Jesus is our Lord, as Thomas said: “My Lord and my God” [John 20:28]. He is God incarnate [Matthew 1:23; John 1:14], and when I know Him, I know God; when I love Him, I love God; and when I worship Him, I’m not an idolater worshiping the creature instead of the Creator. When I worship Him, I am worshiping God.
In reading about those excavations in ancient Rome, on the Palatine palace wall they found a caricature of an early Roman first Christian, first century Christian. You know what the caricature was? Roughly scribbled on the wall was a picture of a man with an ass’s head, nailed to a cross, and before, a fellow bowed in adoration. And in incorrect Greek underneath there was scribbled this caption: “Alexamenos adores his God.” That is the ridicule and the scorn that was heaped upon those who found in Jesus, in the first Christian century, their Savior. But we are open and frank to confess, by that Alexamenos, whoever he was, we also would bow, would kneel, would worship, would adore, for He is our Savior and our God! [Philippians 2:9-11]
Take again: they who deny the tripersonality of God make of the Holy Spirit of God just an influence. But the Holy Spirit of God can be grieved [Ephesians 4:30]. He can be vexed [Isaiah 63:10]. He can move us. He can illuminate our minds. He takes the things of Jesus and reveals them to us [John 16:13-15], and when the Spirit moves in our hearts, it is the presence of God in our souls [1 Corinthians 6:19-20]. And again, they who deny the tripersonality of God make of the Holy Scriptures a falsehood, for the Scriptures lead us to believe that God is God the Father, Jesus is God the Savior, the Holy Spirit is God in our hearts [2 Timothy 1:14; 1 Corinthians 3:16]. But the Holy Scriptures, [they say], have deceived us and they have led us into idolatry. To us they are inerrant, and infallible, and they teach us the right way to worship and to adore [2 Timothy 3:16-17].
May I conclude? I must. Wherever men worship anything but the great living God, they are debased and degraded—that means if they worship gods of gold and silver and stone, an image; that means if they worship the god of the deification of man, as humanism; that means if they worship the god of pleasure, or of fame, or affluence, or success, or ambition, or money, or the world. But wherever a soul bows in worship to the true God the Father, the true Son incarnate God, and the Holy Spirit, wherever men bow in the worship of the triune God, there are they uplifted and exalted, made more and more and more by the sanctifying Spirit into the image of Him who loved us, and gave Himself for us [Galatians 2:20]. We are unashamed, stated-and-avowed Trinitarians [Matthew 28:19]. God reveals to us and we know God as our Father blessed above all [Ephesians 1:3], our wonderful Savior who died for our sins [1 Corinthians 15:3], and as the Holy Spirit who leads us in saving faith to His blessed feet [John 16:8]. That’s God. May we stand together?
Our wonderful, wonderful Lord, not that our minds could begin to comprehend the unfathomable, inexplicable mystery; it’s just that we love Thee, and adore Thee, and worship Thee, and trust Thee, God our Father, God our Savior, and God the Holy Spirit in our souls [1 Corinthians 6:19]. And as all of our people remain for this moment, and as the Spirit of God shall make appeal to your heart: “Here I am, pastor. The family of us, we’re coming this morning,” “the two of us,” or “just I am coming.” And our Lord, thank Thee for the sweet harvest; in Thy precious and saving and keeping name, amen. In the balcony round, on the lower floor, down a stairway, down one of these aisles: “Here I come, pastor. We’re on the way.” God bless you and angels attend as you come, while we sing our appeal.